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House approves Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON ? The Bush Administration's plan to revive the nuclear industry and store deadly waste on Indian lands will endanger Native communities and their future generations, according to several Native leaders and activists who blasted a May 9 House vote to approve Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository.

"For the House of Representatives to support Bush's plan to dump this country's nuclear waste on the backs of Native Americans is an insult," said Tom Goldtooth, coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a grouping of 200 indigenous organizations with national offices in Bemidji, Minn. "This is an extreme act of environmental racism and a travesty against tribe's rights.

"The nuclear industry has waged an undeclared war against indigenous peoples that has poisoned our communities for 50 years through uranium mining, testing of nuclear weapons, incinerating and burying radioactive waste, and even experiments involving Native peoples. We've already made countless sacrifices for this country's nuclear programs."

In a Feb. 15 letter to the House and Senate, Bush argued that Yucca Mountain was necessary "to protect public safety, health and national security because completion of this project would isolate highly radioactive materials now scattered throughout the nation in a remote geological repository.

"Nuclear power is the second largest source of U.S. electricity generation and must remain a major component of our national energy policy for years to come," he added. "The cost of nuclear power compares favorably with electricity generation by other sources and nuclear power has none of the emissions associated with coal and gas power plants."

Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council said the Bush Administration never consulted with his people about serious risks that could "endanger the future of our tribal nation," the seven bands of the Western Shoshone Nation who still claim ownership of Yucca Mountain and millions of acres in Nevada under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.

"Yucca Mountain is a sacred site with spiritual and cultural significance in our sovereign territory of Newe Sogobia," Yowell said. "Yucca Mountain is not a responsible solution to our nation's nuclear waste management problem because it lies in an active earthquake zone above an aquifer that provides water to many people in Nevada. The industry will only continue to create more waste, and I hear the Bush energy plan is even proposing to build more nuclear power plants."

Their comments came in response to the House vote to approve Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository, despite vehement opposition from Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, several states and dozens of tribes who will be impacted by transportation of the waste.

The House voted 306 to 117 ? with 12 not voting ? to approve the measure that advances the formal designation of Yucca Mountain as a national repository for 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste, most of it spent fuel from nuclear power plants located in the East.

Critics note that federal environmental regulations have been ignored and changed several times to accommodate the site, even though they say it sits atop 34 seismic faults and has potential for volcanic activity.

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They also cite assessments by the Department of Energy that estimate about 300 accidents by trucks, so-called "Mobile Chernobyls," carrying nuclear waste over a 30-year span through 44 states and dozens of Indian nations.

The dispute pits at least one tribe against environmentalists in Minnesota, where Xcel Energy operates two nuclear power plants ? one of which is located only 600 yards from the Prairie Island Dakota community on an island in the Mississippi River. A total of 17 dry-cask nuclear waste storage units are projected for the site.

As the closest community in the nation to an existing, temporary nuclear waste storage site, the Prairie Island Indian Community has supported the Yucca Mountain repository. Tribal Council President Audrey Kohnen urged the project to move forward quickly, in a January 10 statement.

"We recognize this is a very difficult issue and we respect the viewpoints of those who don't share our position on Yucca Mountain," Kohnen said. "We did not ask for a nuclear neighbor, and we know the people of Nevada have not asked for one either. But we believe that storing nuclear waste in a remote, militarily secure location, in a facility designed for permanent storage is a better solution than leaving it where it sits, virtually unguarded and only yards away from vulnerable communities such as ours."

Diana McKeown, energy program coordinator for Clean Water Action Network in Minnesota said, "The proposal to move nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain will not rid Prairie Island of nuclear waste currently stored on the banks of the Mississippi. As each nuclear waste cask is slowly moved from Prairie Island to Yucca Mountain, it will be replaced with another cask full of waste. The result is that we will always have 17 casks of nuclear waste on Prairie Island as long as the plant continues to operate."

At the late April Indigenous Energy Forum in Flagstaff, Ariz., Manny Pino, a professor of sociology and Indian Studies at Scottsdale Community College and a member of Acoma Pueblo, spoke about the devastation his community experienced after the largest open-pit uranium mine in the world operated only 2,000 feet from the village of Laguna, N.M.

"Between 1952 and 1982, 24 million tons of the richest ore was mined from this area," he said. "And today we have clusters of cancers among our elders, deformities in our children, birth defects and Down's Syndrome. These are the innocent victims of the nuclear industry in Indian country.

"When we hear the Bush Administration talk about revitalizing nuclear power as an alternative to the coal-fired generating stations that produce power, we know where they are coming back to ? right to our backyard among the Laguna, Acoma and Din? peoples. Our challenge is to convince the decision-makers, the politicians, to do what is right and not put their economic interests first."

Goldtooth said American citizens are "being duped" with nuclear industry propaganda that portrays nuclear energy as a clean and safe source of power.

"It's not safe, it's an accident waiting to happen, whether it's in energy generation, transportation across the country or in the waste storage process. Concerned tribal members from Prairie Island to Western Shoshone to the proposed Skull Valley Goshute dump in Utah are trying to tell all Americans that the risks are too great. We don't want this radioactive waste in anyone's backyard."

The next battleground is the Senate, where majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a vocal opponent, is responsible for calling up bills. Daschle may decide not to call the bill up and Democrats may successfully support a floor fight against the bill.